I have no cell phone reception at home. There’s a small mountain behind our house, which is called Custer Mountain. It’s more of a large hill really, covered at the base with sagebrush and then higher up with aspen groves and Ponderosa pines. As far as I know it bears no relation to the infamous General. At its top is a windmill, which powers a pump to pull painfully cold, clear water straight up from the base of that hill, filling a stock tank which used to provide water for grazing cattle, but now primarily serves as refreshment for our local herd of elk.
Because of that tank, the elk can be lazy, staying high up where there’s a better chance of a breeze keeping the bugs at bay, rather than going down to the river to drink. That tank also has been the death of many a chipmunk and ground squirrel, which apparently dive in for a sip and then can’t get sufficient purchase on the slick tin sides to clamber out. It pains me to think how they must panic, paddling frantically, not noticing the logs I’ve strategically placed near the side for their convenience, from which they could launch themselves over the lip of the tank and back to safe, dry ground. I find a couple of them, bloated and disintegrating, floating on their bellies, whenever I walk up there. I’m saddened by this, knowing they’ve survived brutal, long winters and clever predators, to die seeking liquid refreshment.
This hill not only offers picturesque wildlife habitat, and does a bang-up jobbing blocking the worst of the north wind, it also prevents any signal reaching us from the cell tower that was built in town several years ago. This bothers others more than me, especially those who live in cities. They leave messages for me on my cell phone, assuming I’ll receive them immediately, like other civilized human beings do. I usually get those messages a week later, when I finally drive through a cell zone in town. Not to receive messages with anything remotely resembling promptness, nor be at the beck and call of someone else’s need to get me information, makes ME feel civilized.
A year after we moved to the ranch, which means many years before that local cell tower was built, I decided to ride my horse up the grassy draw — not surprisingly called Custer Draw — that stretches from in front of our house eastward into the State Park. My beautiful bay Quarter horse was named Beau (or, according to AQHA records from 1980, Heza Beau Two, son of Heza Beau out of Smart Magnolia Tee, born just 35 years after me), and his looks lived up in every respect to his name. He had a large, kind eye, a thick black mane and tail, and a proud build. Disregarding that I live on a cattle ranch, with all the practicalities that entails, what I cinched up was an English saddle. There were two good reasons for this. One, I could carry my English saddle from the tack room without staggering, pausing every few steps to rest or collapsing on my knees, and two, I could lift it onto Beau’s back without needing a stepping stool, a winch or a handy wrangler for assistance.
We covered the quarter mile to our boundary fence with the Park in a gentle trot, me scanning the pine forest that bordered the draw for red tail hawks on tree tops, Beau most likely smelling things I couldn’t see. If he was picking up the scent of anything fierce, like black bear or mountain lion, he didn’t let on. Locking the fence gate behind me to make sure no cows found their way from the state land onto our land, I headed up a short sagebrush slope. From up there, as I looked around to decide which way to go, I noticed a cowboy on the other side of the draw. This was unexpected. During hunting season in the Fall I might occasionally scare up an orange-vested hunter who imagined himself stalking the wily elk, but apart from that I normally had the draw all to myself.
Being a bit near-sighted — or, as the DMV prefers to classify me, legally blind in one eye — all I could make out with certainty was that this was indeed a cowboy… the cowboy hat gave that away…and that the person was mounted on a white and sorrel horse of the variety they call Paint. That fulfilled the “what” question, but left the “who” and “why” unanswered.
Glad for a reason to do something other than just ride abstractly with no objective, I swung Beau around and headed across the thigh-high green grass of Custer Draw to investigate. As I got closer I could tell the cowboy was clutching his cheek in his hand. “Must have a toothache,” I thought. “But why sit on horseback out here if your head’s hurting. Why not get on toward home, where a proper ice pack and some Advil might be found.”
Don’t worry….Part 2’s coming…..